Desert hike filled with meaning

Desert hike filled with meaning

All my life I have been told, and since becoming a rabbi 18 years ago have been telling people myself, that the Jewish people are one, that we are a single family united by a common past and a shared destiny. But sermons, campaign slogans, and posters came to life for me recently like never before in a most unlikely place: the remote, empty and sun-soaked trails of the Judean desert.

For five days, my two sisters and I, along with 80 others, hiked up extreme ascents, down treacherous cliffs, and through deep canyons in one of the world’s most breathtaking settings, with the Dead Sea’s luscious yet lifeless blue waters keeping watch over us. If you had come upon us in the desert, you would have assumed we were yet another group of North American Jews exploring our homeland and building ties to Israel through nature, fitness, and history. But you would only be half right. Let me introduce you to some of my fellow hikers:

• Tzur had been shot in the head by terrorists and told he would never walk or talk again. He and his father Oren hiked with us in the advanced group all week.

• Cheryl’s son Daniel was murdered when serving as a captain in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF), as he attempted to arrest members of a terrorist cell.

• Ron lost his 17-year-old daughter Tal in 2003 when the bus she was riding on in Haifa exploded.

• Ettie’s son Edan was killed by terrorists on the last day of the Second Lebanon War.

• Mikey takes a month off from work every year to travel with and supervise a group of young victims of terror who are brought to summer camp in Canada.

The rest of us were mostly from Toronto, a couple from Boston, and me from Bergen County. We came to Israel to embrace these Israelis and share with them and the over 17,000 others whose lives have been changed forever by terrorism the more than $300,000 we had raised this year for the One Family Fund – to my mind, a remarkable organization that provides psychological, medical, social, and recreational support to victims of terrorism and the families of those murdered ( And yes, we came to hike.

A familiar face

Ironically, our hike began as rockets rained down on Ashkelon and Ashdod, just 100 kilometers away, where my brothers-in-law were beginning a five-day bike ride in support of disabled IDF veterans through Beit HaLochem. The theme for this fourth annual Cross Israel Hike, organized by One Family Canada, was memory – remembering those who had perished at the hands of terrorists. Each hiker was given a small picture and biography of someone in whose memory we were to hike that we were to attach to our backpacks. They were not all strangers. As I looked through the pile, I was struck by a familiar face – my cousin’s (by marriage) brother Ro’i Arbel, who had been killed by snipers while driving home from work one evening in 2004. He left his young wife Hagit and their one-year-old triplets. I still have his picture clipped onto my pack.

Each day, we were out in the desert awed by its rugged beauty. Each night, we gathered under the stars overwhelmed by the rugged courage of our Israeli brothers and sisters – listening to their stories, watching home movies of their gorgeous, now deceased children, witnessing their pain and their suffering, feeling their strength and their spirit.

One night, the One Family Bereaved Men’s Choir came to sing for us. We gathered on the mosaic floor of a 1,500 year-old synagogue in Ein Gedi, covered only by a canopy blowing in the desert night wind, to listen to the heartfelt voices of fathers who had buried sons and daughters murdered because they are Jews living in Israel. How embarrassing to have been unable to restrain my tears as these fathers found the courage to sing – to sing – in the wake of their children’s deaths. Speaking to one of them after the concert, he explained to me why he loves to perform. Not only is singing healing to him, but since his son Ofir no longer has a voice, he believes that when he sings, he brings forth the beautiful and melodious soul of his child.

Phone call from home

The nightly experience of immersing myself in the stories of these parents whose children had been so violently taken from them was emotionally overwhelming. At some point in the evening, my cell phone would ring and on the other end would be the voice of one of my four precious children calling from home to check in, say “I love you” or “I miss you,” and promise to call again the next day. The juxtaposition was humbling, to say the least. How blessed, and how vulnerable, I felt.

Each night’s presentation inevitably ended with profuse thanks from the Israeli participants to all of us who raised money to enable the One Family Fund to comfort and support them in the many important ways that they do. It often felt like the awkward stereotypical Jewish story: the rich cousins from America bring some fruits of our freedom and privilege in the diaspora to our struggling cousins in Israel.

And then I spoke to Cheryl.

We had a lengthy conversation, during which she told me of her and her husband’s decision to move to Israel from Toronto with their five children some 20 years ago. Then she told me of the tragic and devastating loss of their son Daniel. I asked her what message she would want our group to bring home to our communities in Canada and the United States.

She paused for a moment, gathered herself, and then calmly said: “I am not angry about what happened to Daniel. I understand that there are responsibilities that come with living in Israel, one of which is participating in her defense. And along with that comes great risk. But I want people to know that Daniel didn’t serve in the Israeli army and risk and ultimately lose his life only out of his loyalty to the State of Israel or out of his strong personal convictions.” She looked me straight in the eyes and continued, “He did it for you.”

The message that the freedom and security enjoyed by Jews around the world is largely dependent upon a strong and secure State of Israel is one we have heard many times.

And it is true.

Message hit home

Equally important is the strength and vitality of the United States to the well-being of Israel. But to have the mother of a murdered soldier stare straight into my eyes and declare that her son risked and lost his life in part for me – for my safety and freedom as a Jew in the diaspora – affected me deeply. What I had always known in my head seared its way into my heart.

When asked to offer some closing remarks that night, I made sure that the expressions of profound and humbling gratitude from us to all those who not only serve in Tzahal but who build lives, families, careers, and communities in Israel were heard loudly and clearly. For ultimately, what defines a family is not simply the provisions one member supplies to the other. It is the sense of responsibility each member feels for the other.

We were there with our sponsorships, our compassion, our commitment, and our hiking boots, for which our Israeli family expressed deep thanks. They were there with their scars, their memories, their courage, and their resolve, for which we expressed immeasurable indebtedness.

Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh – the Jewish people are all responsible one for the other. How tragic that too often it takes tragedy to remind us all.

At the closing celebration at the end of the hike, we clasped hands and danced to the irrepressible music and spirit of life. Jews from different backgrounds, countries, religious philosophies, and political orientations all rallied around the singular truth that at the end of the day, we are One Family.

Perhaps one day humanity will come to recognize that beyond the distinctions of race, religion, and culture, we too are one human family. Perhaps on that day they will start to truly accept responsibility one for another, and will allow organizations such as the One Family Fund to shift their efforts from consoling people in the wake of terror and death to celebrating with people the beauty and sacredness of life.